Progressive Capitalism by David Sainsbury: A new centre ground is being forged

This book is equally important for what it says and for who is saying it. A decade ago, this prospectus would have seen its author branded “Red Sainsbury”. Now it is sensible and mainstream.

Progressive Capitalism: How to Achieve Economic Growth, Liberty and Social Justice
David Sainsbury
Biteback, 256pp, £20

This book is equally important for what it says and for who is saying it. The argument that growth, liberty and social justice require a fundamental reform of capitalism is rapidly moving from the left to the mainstream; and nothing symbolises this more than that David Sainsbury, the epitome of the progressive mainstream since his days in the vanguard of David Owen’s SDP in the 1980s, should be making it.

It is a powerful and cogent critique. Sainsbury was an effective science minister under Tony Blair who greatly increased state support for science. However, he writes: “It was only after I left government . . . that I began to question fundamentally the neoliberal political economy which had dominated governments in the western world for the last 35 years.”

Partly this was because of the 2008 crash and a growing conviction that competitiveness required a “race to the top” – not neo - liberalism’s “race to the bottom” – with state support for employment, innovation and skills. But there was also a telling personal dimension: the private equity takeover bid for his family firm, Sainsbury’s, in the summer of 2007. “There was not the slightest pretence of trying to improve the performance of the company,” he claims. The bidders proposed “to sell off all the properties and replace them with massive debts. Then they would put the company back on the market . . . and walk away with £1bn of profit.” The City was wildly keen, salivating at the £100m in fees the investment banks stood to earn: “a perfect example of wealth appropriation as opposed to wealth creation”.

The policy prospectus set out in the second half of the book is a must-read for anyone seeking to make sense of that new catchphrase “active industrial policy”. Sainsbury recommends far-reaching reform of equity markets to foster the creation and expansion of companies rather than their destruction and foreign takeover; a “national system of innovation” with the state as a key player; and a revolution in technical and vocational education that emulates German strength in these areas, although he warns against copying Germany glibly.

On equity markets, he favours a big cut in the fees paid to investment managers and a new “Shareholders’ Advisory Board” to promote “an understanding of the fundamental value of the companies in which [the City] invest[s]” rather than their short-term trading value. Investment managers should also get far more involved in the governance of the companies they own, including the appointment of directors and holding them to account, and constrain the boardroom pay explosion which shows little sign of abating. A wildly overpaid City breeds a wildly overpaid corporate sector.

Sainsbury is especially bold on takeovers. He proposes higher “hurdles” in shareholder support required from within the target company, and restrictions on those who can vote to those who have held shares in the target company for “a certain number of years”. This goes way beyond the 2012 Kay review of equity markets and long-term decision-making.

On innovation, Sainsbury supports the coalition’s establishment of Catapult Centres – national technology and innovation hubs in key industrial sectors, starting with highvalue manufacturing – but he favours more support for new technologies. Government departments should have “embedded R&D units” to promote technology and innovation on a strategic long-term basis; and regional development agencies – abolished by the coalition in 2010 – should be restored “in parts of the country which need them”.

A dramatic increase in the supply of technicians, especially with engineering skills, is Sainsbury’s goal for a revamped education and training system. Kenneth Baker’s new breed of university technical colleges for 14- to-19-year-olds should be expanded and local industry integrated in the management of further education. Some would go further and seek to introduce an English equivalent of Germany’s “dual system”, whereby employers and local authorities take joint responsibility for a system of mass apprenticeships with highquality vocational training alongside. But Sainsbury does not think this feasible because of the weakness of Britain’s chambers of commerce, trade associations and trade unions in comparison with Germany.

Sainsbury would pioneer reform through an “enabling state”, rather than through a return to “command and control”. But an enabling state is not a smaller state. “A first task of progressive politicians is to persuade people of the importance of competent and active government, standing above sectional interests,” he writes. This, conceptually, is a return to mainstream social democracy after its partial abandonment in recent decades. It cannot be achieved without a transformation in the capabilities of government, including a new national economic council and a much more purposeful civil service.

Sainsbury also puts in a heartfelt personal plea, from a public-spirited party donor caught up in party funding controversies, for state funding of parties so that governments of both parties are better able “to stand up to the financial power of interest groups”, be they trade unions or investment managers and bankers.

A decade ago, this prospectus would have seen its author branded “Red Sainsbury”. Now it is pretty sensible and mainstream. A new centre ground is being forged.

Andrew Adonis is the author of “5 Days in May: the Coalition and Beyond” (Biteback, £12.99)

The argument that growth, liberty and social justice require a fundamental reform of capitalism is rapidly moving from the left to the mainstream. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder